There have been three portable games in the Castlevania series for the Game Boy family of systems, before the Game Boy Advance. These are Castlevania: The Adventure, Castlevania II: Belmontís Revenge, and Castlevania Legends. They were fun games in their own right but they didnít come close to touching their console counterparts in terms of greatness. This trend came crashing down with the release of Castlevania: Circle of the Moon.
Castlevania: Circle of the Moon was released on the Game Boy Advance in North America on June 10th, 2001. The game followed the Metroidvania style made popular by Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It garnered critical acclaim for making the portable games as complex and fun as the console games.
I bought this game on launch day. I didnít beat it until years later, though. There are two reasons for this. First, the game was released at the time of the original Game Boy Advance, the one without the backlit screen. COTM was a very dark game and you could hardly see what was going on in the screen unless you were under direct light. And even so, it was hard to see what was going on. It wasnít until I had a Game Boy Advance SP with a backlit screen that I gave this game a real chance. With that solved, however, there was still another reason I didnít finish this game right away. The game is very hard. If you are not ready, the first boss will totally destroy you. The difficulty level put me off for a while and it wasnít until much later that I finally finished this game, on the DS Lite. I was very happy that I did. COTM has become one of my favorite GBA games of all time.
Circle of the Moon on the Game Boy Advance SP without Backlight, with Backlight, and on the DS Lite.
Story In 1830, Camilla, a minion of Dracula, started a rite to resurrect the Prince of Darkness once again. Vampire Hunter, Morris Baldwin, tried to stop his resurrection with the help of his apprentices Nathan Graves and Hugh Baldwin (his son). Unfortunately, they were too late and Dracula had already been revived. Fortunately, he did not have his full power yet. He needed to wait until the full moon for his true power to manifest. He took his old nemesis, Morris, captive and threw his apprentices down a long shaft into the pits of Castlevania. Both of them survived. Nathan wanted to find Morris with Hugh, but Hugh decided to go separately in order to prove himself worthier than Nathan. And so begins the tale of Circle of the Moon.
Graphics The graphics in this game are good but nothing special. Monsters and items are recycled from previous Castlevanias, for the most part, but they look a bit worse for wear in this game. In fact, the sprites for the main character and most enemies are rather small. The art design of the enemies, the heroes, and even Castlevania itself, are pretty uninspired. In fact, the Castle is so drab that you will have a hard time knowing where you are sometimes without the aid of a map. The fact that the places have names that only pop up when you enter them for the first time and never crop up again adds to the confusion. There are a few standout bosses that look pretty good however. These are: Adramelech, the Dragon Zombies, and Draculaís Second Form. Curiously, they are also the best and hardest boss fights in the game.
Two of the coolest bosses in the game.
Sound The sound is as uninspired as the graphics. The music sounds well enough, but the compositions are boring as heck. Gone are the beautiful CD melodies of Symphony of the night or the amazingly epic midi composition from Super Castlevania IV. Even the NES games had much better music than this game. I donít mean that as a slight to the NES. Iím just saying that the music here is so bad that I would rather listen to the worst pieces from the 8-bit NES games, than the best this game has to offer. There are some good tracks here, but they are all recycled from Super Castlevania IV and I prefer the original arrangements and instruments. Hereís a comparison of Trick Manor from Circle of the Moon and Clock Work Mansion from Super Castlevania IV. Note: the music for COTM actually sounds better on Youtube than on the GBA/DS.
Gameplay Now this is where the game really shines. In true Castlevania fashion, the gameplay in COTM is solid, tough, and fun. Nathan handles a bit stiffly but he still responds perfectly to your commands. The whip feels great and fast. You can also hold down the ďbĒ button to make the whip spin around you in a circle. Unfortunately, you will not be able to whip in different directions or make the whip go limp like in Super Castlevania IV.
The Vampire Killer, GBA style.
You will also be able to gain Magic Items which work in the same way as Relics in Symphony of the Night. These Items will grant you abilities such as dashing and double jumping. I would mention what the others do but that would mean spoiling parts of the game for you.
In terms of equipment, you can equip your Body, Right Arm, and Left Arm. Thatís it. Itís a bit of a downgrade from Symphony of the Night, since you only have three equipment slots in this game as compared to seven in SOTN. What is an upgrade from Symphony of the Night is the way items are accessed. Instead of assigning your item to one of your arms, you just use them in the item screen. For example, in order to use a potion in SOTN, you had to assign it to either your right or left arm and use it during battle. In COTM, you just go to the status item screen and use a potion. Itís much easier, even though it takes you away from the battle, because you donít have to waste and arm slot and you will not accidentally trigger a potion when you really wanted to use your left arm. One caveat, though, potions are far and few between and they donít really recover that much HP, adding to the difficulty of the game. Also, there is no store where you could buy extra potions (or anything else) so have to fight enemies and wait for potion drops.
The status screen. Nothing to see here. Move along, move along.
The level design in the game is also pretty good. Itís not as good as Symphony of the Night but it does a good job, nonetheless. The game follows what has been dubbed as the Metroidvania style of gameplay, made popular by the Metroid series and SOTN, where you can traverse the entire Castle as long as you have the right Magic Items (Relics in SOTN and Upgrades in Metroid), as opposed to old school Castlevania games which were divided into stages. This makes the game consist of a lot of backtracking, but it is still fun since you will now be able to reach areas you previously couldnít.
DSS There is a new gameplay element at work in COTM called the Dual Setup System (DSS). The DSS consists of 20 magical cards, ten of which are Action Cards while the other ten are attribute Cards. If you combine an action card with an attribute card you can get different effects such as fire whips, stronger attacks, or even summons. For example, if you combine the Uranus and Cockatrice cards, you summon a giant Cockatrice that helps you fight your enemies. It is a pretty cool system and itís a refreshing change of pace for a Castlevania game.
Thereís no greater humiliation than slapping someone in the face with a giant Cockatrice. Especially if you summoned it with Uranus.
Extras The Battle Arena is a place contained inside the game itself where you can fight stronger versions of enemies from the game. There are 17 rooms and you can exit the arena between certain rooms. When you enter the Arena, your MP drops to zero, you canít use your DSS cards unless you have MP recovery items. Once you complete the arena, you will get the best armor, the Shinning Armor. There are also two cards you can only get while inside the Arena. Truth be told, I have not completed the Arena yet. It is incredibly tough and Iím not at a high enough level yet (Iím at level 52). Iíll have to put this in my Gamer Bucket List.
This is just the first room.
After you complete, the game you can also unlock different Gameplay Modes. The Castlevania Wiki explains it perfectly so I am just going to quote them:
ďOnce the game is completed, the player receives a code that can be entered as their name when starting a new game. This code will start the game in Magician Mode, where the player starts with all 20 DSS cards, and high magical ability, at the expense of reduced strength, defense, and health. By completing Magician Mode, another code is received, which lets the player start the game in Fighter Mode. In this mode, no DSS cards can be obtained or used, but physical power is drastically increased. In turn, completing Fighter Mode unlocks the code for Shooter Mode. This mode places an emphasis on combat using the subweapons, giving the player a very high maximum of Hearts to use them with (as well as halving the amount of hearts each subweapon uses), but giving a penalty to strength, defense, and HP. Shooter Mode also has a unique subweapon, the Homing Dagger, which is only usable in this mode. Completing Shooter Mode unlocks the code for Thief Mode. This last alternate mode reduces all of the player's stats except Luck, which is boosted by an enormous amount. The idea in Thief Mode is to survive on whatever items and equipment the enemies drop, with greater Luck increasing the odds of getting items from each kill. No alternate mode codes will function until the prior mode is actually completed.Ē
No Konami Code? Fail!
Final Thoughts Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is a huge leap over previous portable Castlevanias. The graphics are superior and so is the sound, even though both could have used more inspiration. The level design harkens back to the Metroidvania style that has become a staple of the series. The gameplay is also much tighter than previous portable Castlevanias provides a glimpse of the games that will follow. The game is also very hard which reminds me of the good old NES days without being unfair. Circle of the Moon is the first in what soon became the premiere Castlevania experience. While console titles experimented with 3D games styled after Devil May Cry and God of War, the portable Castlevanias continued honing and perfecting the 2D exploration aspects of the series that started with Symphony of the Night, eventually creating a game which I consider the true successor to Symphony of the Night. I will get to that game in a later review. All in all, I am very proud to have this game in my collection and I consider Circle of the Moon one of my favorite Game Boy Advance games.
Trivia: For American gamers, this was the first appearance of Camilla since Simon's Quest on the NES. In 2002, Circle of the Moon was removed from the series timeline, a move met with some resistance from fans. Igarashi noted the reason for the removal as not due to his non-involvement with the games, but instead the intention of the game's development team for Circle of the Moon to be a stand-alone title. However since that time, later timelines distributed with preordered copies of Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin noted the game's presence, as did one featured in Nintendo Power for a preview of Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia. However, unlike other games mentioned, Circle of the Moon's events were not described.